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Back and Knee Pain: Get the Relief You Need!

Holly Smith

By: Holly Smith, M.D. - Osteopathic Medicine, B.S. - Dietetics, NASM-PES Certified Trainer,

Writer, The Fit Father Project & Fit Mother Project

back and knee pain

Got back and knee pain? Don't worry! Even the healthiest guys out there will get the occasional aches and pains.

Being an active dad and staying on top of your fitness is the best way to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

But it also comes with some soreness, and the most common issues that slow guys down are back and knee pain.

Understanding what causes back and knee pain will help you figure out the best way to treat, or even avoid, these issues altogether.

This means getting back to your workout routine feeling better than ever.

Keep reading to learn how to make back and knee pain an afterthought, not a black cloud hanging over your head!

Joint pain is different from muscle pain, but it can be beaten, too. Here's how!

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Common Causes of Musculoskeletal Back Pain

At some point, guys are going to encounter musculoskeletal back pain in some form or another.

This can occur in the neck, middle, or lower back.

While back pain can occur from other medical issues, such as kidney stones, this article will focus on the pain that originates in the muscles, bones, and connective tissues in the low back.

Being Overweight

Being overweight and carrying excess weight in the stomach puts extra stress and pressure on the lumbosacral curve in the lower back.

This could result in biomechanical changes in the lumbar spine and even spinal misalignment.

A 2018 study found a statistically significant association between BMI and low back pain.

Muscle Strain From Overexertion/Injury

Your job can play a big role in developing back pain.

Obviously, if you have a very active job where you do a lot of heavy lifting, pushing, pulling, or bending, this increases the chance of straining your back muscles.

But sedentary desk jobs can also lead to neck pain and low back pain.

Sitting all day at a desk with poor posture can cause abnormal stress on the low back muscles that can lead to pain and muscle spasms.

Learn about the dangers of sitting for too long and how to combat the negative effects of sitting.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis can occur in the back, just like in another joint in the body.

As men get older, the chances of developing osteoarthritis increase, and can be worsened with certain activities.

Herniated Discs

The spine has discs that separate and cushion the vertebrae.

Sometimes the material in the disc can escape and press on the nerves in the spine, causing back pain and pain that can radiate down into the legs.

Men are more prone to disc rupture as they are predominantly involved in work that requires manual labor such as heavy lifting, pushing, and pulling.

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Exercises That Worsen Back Pain and What To Do Instead

Research has shown that exercise and physical activity are great preventative measures to treat back pain.

However, it's important to choose exercises that aren’t going to worsen any pre-existing back pain.

Obviously, any exercise that causes pain should be avoided, but certain moves are definitely worse than others if you are already suffering from back pain.

Here are exercises to avoid if you have low back pain, and alternatives to do instead.

Barbell Squats

Squats are an awesome exercise to strengthen your glutes, quads, and hamstrings.

Unfortunately, this can put a lot of stress on the low back, especially if you have poor form.

Alternative: Kettlebell Squats

To avoid the risk of worsening any current back pain, you can hold a kettlebell or dumbbell in front of you at chest level while squatting.

By using a lighter weight and holding it close to your body you can limit any stress on your low back muscles.

Learn the proper squat form with kettlebell squats for men.

Sit-Ups

Traditional sit-ups can worsen back pain by increasing pressure on the discs in your spine.

Studies have shown that sit-ups can increase pressure in the discs up to 210%, increasing the risk of worsening back pain or even developing a herniated disc.

Alternative: Dead Bug

During this core workout, you are actively pressing the lower back into the floor at all times to ensure that no excess weight is transferred into the back.

  • To do this exercise, lie flat on your back with your arms and legs extended toward the ceiling.
  • Engage your core to press your lower back firmly into the floor.
  • Maintaining this back position, lower one arm toward the floor behind you and the opposite leg toward the floor in front of you so that they form one straight line, parallel to the floor.
  • Pause, then squeeze through the abs to raise both back toward the ceiling.
  • Repeat on the opposite side.

Supermans

Strengthening the small core muscles of the lower back can be great for improving back pain.

However, for guys with bulging or herniated discs in the lower back, the superman exercise can further compress these discs.

Alternative: Bird Dog

This exercise strengthens the entire core, including the low back, while keeping the spine in a neutral position.

  • To do this, start on all fours with your hands directly below your shoulders and knees directly below your hips.
  • Keep your core engaged and don’t allow your hips to sink or back to arch.
  • Raise your right hand and the left leg to form a straight line, parallel to the floor.
  • Keep the torso completely still without leaning or wobbling.
  • Pause, then lower both limbs to the floor and repeat on the other side.

Learn how to do the 2-point superman core exercise, one of the best lower back and core strengthening exercises.

Shoulder Press

Similar to barbell back squats, when performing the shoulder press, guys with poor form tend to place the weight into their lower back or arch their back to make the exercise easier.

Alternative: Pike Push-Ups

  • With your hands and feet on the ground, hike your hips to create an upside-down V with your body.
  • Keeping your legs straight, bend your elbows and bring your head towards the ground before pushing back to your starting position.
  • This exercise will develop strength and stability in the shoulders without putting pressure on the low back.

Deadlift

A properly performed deadlift is one of the best full-body exercises, but poor technique can make the deadlift one of the worst exercises for a bad back.

This typically happens when lifters let the lower back dip, the upper back rounds, or the bar travels too far away from the legs.

Alternative: Romanian Deadlift

Yes, you can still perform deadlifts with back pain.

The key is to change up the technique so that you can get all of the benefits of the lift without the risk of worsening any underlying back issues.

Romanian deadlifts are a safer alternative for men with back pain.

  • Use an overhand grip to hold a barbell or dumbbells at hip level.
  • Draw your shoulders back and keep your spine straight.
  • Push your hips back as you slowly lower the bar toward your feet.
  • Press your hips forward to come into a standing position with the barbell in front of your thighs.

Learn how to do a single-leg Romanian deadlift with dumbbells.

Common Causes of Knee Pain

Knee pain is another common joint complaint that men develop.

Common causes of knee pain include:

Obesity/Being Overweight

Similar to back pain, excess weight puts increased pressure on all joints, especially the knees.

Over time this causes worsening knee pain and can even be the prime cause of knee osteoarthritis.

A 2016 study found that the development of severe obesity in adulthood increases the risk of knee pain by 80% and functional limitations by more than 90%.

This means maintaining a healthy weight is not only important to avoid knee pain, but also to improve your ability to exercise and perform everyday activities.


Osteoarthritis

Similar to the back, age increases the likelihood of developing osteoarthritis in the knees.

This can happen even in people who are of normal weight and is due to the degeneration of the joint surfaces.

Runner’s Knee/Patellofemoral Syndrome

Patellofemoral pain syndrome is pain at the front of your knee and around your kneecap.

It is also known as “runner's knee,” since it is more common in people who participate in sports that involve running and jumping.

The knee pain often increases when you run, walk up or downstairs, sit for long periods, or squat.

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IT Band Syndrome

The iliotibial band is a thick band of fascia, or connective tissue, that crosses the hip joint and extends distally to insert on the patella, tibia, and biceps femoris tendon.

Because this band inserts at the knee, the most common symptom is lateral knee pain caused by inflammation of the distal portion of the iliotibial band.

This is typically due to overuse injuries.

Meniscus Tears

The menisci are internal structures of the knees that are key for healthy knee joints.

These C-shaped pieces of cartilage act like a cushion between your tibia and your femur.

They also play a role in the progression of knee osteoarthritis.

While not all meniscus tears cause symptoms, any clicking or catching in the knee typically indicates damage to the meniscus.

Meniscus tears are common in contact sports, but can also occur when jumping or cutting suddenly.

Exercises That Worsen Knee Pain and What To Do Instead

Plyometric Exercises

Whether your knees are in rough shape from injury or repetitive exercising, high impact activities like running and jumping can significantly worsen knee pain.

Alternative: Modified Cardio Moves

You can alter your technique to still perform a variety of high-intensity exercises.

Moves like box jumps are a great way to build explosive power, however, you will need to use a lower platform and make sure you’re landing lightly on top of the box.

Then, instead of jumping back down, step down so that you don’t put a lot of pressure on your knees.

If any type of jumping or running hurts, try exercising on an elliptical or running in a pool to protect your joints while still getting aerobic exercise.

Here are our favorite plyometric exercises for beginners and for at-home workouts!

Deep Lunges

Performing deep front lunges can cause knee pain and worsen knee arthritis and degeneration over time.

A 2016 study found that the position of the trunk and tibia has a significant influence on knee loading during the forward lunge, with more pain experienced in the trailing leg.

Another issue with lunges is that the front knee buckles inward when the knee is bent.

This can cause wear and tear to the ligaments and meniscus that support your knee joint.

Alternative: Glute Bridges

Glute bridges are a great exercise to strengthen your hamstrings and glutes while avoiding putting pressure on your knees.

To begin, lie on the ground with your feet flat against the floor, and your knees bent.

Keep your arms close to your sides, point your toes towards the ceiling, and push down through your heels to raise your hips away from the ground.

Then slowly return to the starting position.

Deep Squats

Deep squats put excessive strain on your knees, similar to the manner that occurs with deep lunges.

Over time, this can lead to osteoarthritis and damage to the connective tissue in and around your knee joints.

Alternative: Box Squats

Since squats are an excellent exercise to strengthen glutes, hamstrings, and quads, you can try this variation to decrease the risk of knee pain.

Instead of squatting all the way down, start by squatting to a seated position on top of a seat, or box.

This will ensure that your knees stay in proper alignment and that you don’t put too much pressure or strain on your joints.

Box squats force you to lead with your hips and keep your knees exactly where they should be during the entire movement.

It can be a challenge working out legs with bad knees. We’ll show you 5 exercises that make it easier!

Stretches To Help Relieve Back and Knee Pain

In addition to using alternative exercises, there are also some stretches you can add to your exercise routine to help ease back and knee discomfort.

Child’s Pose

This yoga pose stretches your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back muscles.

Its relaxing effect on your body also helps to loosen up tight lower back muscles, promoting flexibility and blood circulation along the spine.

  • Start with your hands and knees on the ground and sit back to rest your hips on your heels.
  • Hinge at your hips as you fold forward, walking your hands out in front of you.
  • Rest your belly on your thighs.
  • Extend your arms in front of or alongside your body with your palms facing up.
  • Focus on breathing deeply and relaxing any areas of tension or tightness.
  • Hold this pose for up to 1 minute.

Knees to Chest

This stretch relaxes your low back, hips, thighs, and glutes.

  • To do this stretch, lie on your back with both knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
  • Keep your left knee bent or extend it straight out along the floor.
  • Draw your right knee into your chest, clasping your hands behind your thigh or at the top of your shinbone.
  • Lengthen your spine all the way down to your tailbone and avoid lifting your hips.
  • Hold this pose for 5-10 breaths.
  • Repeat with the other leg.

Seated Spine Twist

This stretch works your hips, glutes, and low back and will help increase mobility in your spine.

  • Start sitting with both legs extended out in front of you.
  • Bend your right knee and place your foot to the outside of your left thigh.
  • Bend your left leg, placing your foot near your right thigh.
  • Lift your arms up with your palms facing each other.
  • Starting at the base of your spine, twist to the right side.
  • Place your right hand behind you for support.
  • Place your left arm around your right leg as though you’re hugging it, or bring your upper arm to the outside of your thigh.
  • Hold this pose for up to 1 minute.
  • Repeat on the other side.

These stretches for people who sit all day will help combat the negative effects of sitting too much.

Cat-Cow Stretch

The cat-cow stretch is a great way to stretch your low spine while also stretching your shoulders, neck, and chest.

  • Start on your hands and knees, with your hands directly below your shoulders and knees below your hips.
  • Press into your hands and feet as you inhale to look up, allowing your belly to fill with air.
  • Exhale, tucking your chin into your chest and arching your spine toward the ceiling.
  • Continue this pattern of movement, moving with each breath.
  • Do this for 5-10 breaths.

Hamstring and Calf Stretch

The hamstring muscle crosses the back of the knee. To relieve tightness in this area, try this stretch.

  • Stand about one foot from a wall and place your hands on the wall at shoulder height.
  • Take a step back with one leg while pushing into the wall.
  • Keep your back straight and press your heels into the floor.
  • Hold for 15 to 30 seconds.
  • Step forward and repeat with the other leg.
  • Repeat the exercise three times on each side.

Standing Quad Stretch

The standing quad stretch loosens up the muscles and tendons in the front of your knee joint.

You’ll feel the stretch in your quads in the front of your thigh.

  • Stand upright and hold onto a door or chair for support.
  • Grab your left foot with your left hand and pull your heel up towards your butt.
  • Hold for 15-20 seconds, then switch sides.

Use this ground-up, post-workout stretch routine to get rid of lactic acid from your muscles after your workouts and help to avoid delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS).

Relieve Your Back and Knee Pain and Maintain Your Active Lifestyle

Joint aches and pains are inevitable in active men.

Luckily, there are ways to reduce your risk of further worsening your back and knee pain by avoiding certain activities and choosing more joint-friendly exercises.

There are also different stretches that you can perform before and after workouts, and even throughout the day.

And don’t forget a proper warm-up and cool down will help prevent injuries in general.

So don’t let back and knee pain derail your fitness goals.

With these tips, your body will be ready to take on any workout!

Holly Smith

Holly Smith M.D. - Osteopathic Medicine, B.S. - Dietetics, NASM-PES Certified Trainer

Writer, The Fit Father Project & Fit Mother Project

Holly is board-certified in nephrology and internal medicine, has a bachelor’s degree in dietetics, and is a certified personal trainer with NASM-PES certification.

Holly is a keen runner, triathlete, and fitness and nutrition enthusiast. She has completed four full ironmans, twelve marathons, countless half ironmans, Olympic distance triathlons, half marathons, and numerous other road races.

Holly joined the Fit Father Project in May 2019 as a regular writer, contributing articles on health, wellness, exercise, and nutrition.

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